Mila Gaffney and her 18-year-old daughter, Zela Goettler, sat across from each other at a school table. It was designed for children much smaller than either of them, located in Gaffney’s classroom, where she teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing kids.
The pair have been spending a fair amount of time in classrooms lately, as they both prepare to graduate with their associate’s degrees in American Sign Language. The two are sharing the unique experience of navigating college together, a fact they both enjoy. “It’s definitely nice taking classes together, it’s just like taking classes with a friend,” Goettler said.
She was inspired to take American Sign Language classes by her mother, who has been learning it since the ‘80s. Gaffney lost small amounts of her hearing as a child, which “piqued her interest in learning ASL in her early teens.”
The language has since become part of their shared experience at home and on campus. “We can communicate at restaurants that are noisy, we can talk across the house, probably more than Zela likes,” Gaffney said.
Unfortunately, not all kids are able to share this experience with their parents. Gaffney, who has worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing kids for up to 20 years, has found that parents often don’t teach their children signing for fear that it will impact their speech patterns.
“I really enjoy my job. The kids are so cute, but the saddest thing for me to see is when a parent of a deaf child doesn’t bother to learn their child’s language,” she said. “Instead, they make up a few gestures, which means these children can’t ever communicate or have a real meaningful relationship with their parents.”
Gaffney takes pride in the fact that she is able to teach A.S.L. to children who might not be exposed to the language otherwise, and her daughter has been able to benefit from her teaching simultaneously. Growing up, she taught me signs,” Goettler said. “I wanted to learn more signs, so I thought the best way was to take a class.”
Being dual enrolled has let her explore different topics and her passions beyond what she’s getting her degree in. Though Goettler had to leave traditional high school early because of her endometriosis, she hasn’t let this deter her from finding a love for photography.
“I’ve loved taking City College classes way more than high school… Being able to learn what I’m really interested in,” Goettler said. Still, the college experience hasn’t always been easy for them both as they face obstacles.
“I go to work, I’m tired. I go to class, I’m tired,” said Gaffney. “I’ve been signing all day in class and then I go over there… I’m improving myself.” The social aspect has been difficult for Goettler, saying “that’s part of the whole homeschooling. I kind of miss being around people my own age.” She ultimately has found it to be positive and has enjoyed the work ethic of older students.
As for the future, Goettler plans to continue with her photography, and Gaffney will continue teaching and trying to reach out to kids who haven’t been able to learn their language and improve her own at the same time. “We have the City College here that has all these classes, it’s easy, it’s right here… There are always new signs. Starbucks, email, certain signs that weren’t around… The kids learn from us.”